Friday, October 31, 2008

Travelogue 247, October 31
Hallo, Eve

It’s Halloween, and winter has withdrawn under fire from summer’s rear guard. We gather at the graves of the martyrs in shirtsleeves, and we remark that terror has less bite among the mild breezes. But season of terror it is. Why did the Founding Fathers choose a time when the ghosts are walking for elections? It must be a message.

The martyrs we honor are benevolent Saints Humor and Humble. I’ve taken to telling people that I’m voting for Palin. It would be the act of an aesthete. She’s perfect. She defeats the imagination. She’s archetype and transcendent being, an incarnation of the Absurd. I’ve suggested to her campaign that we make her the centerpiece of a new American Existentialist Party, APE. The acronym doesn’t work, of course, and even if it did it might offend the governor’s religion, but it’s a good idea. In any case, none of my acquaintances are amused. When matters are this Important, little is amusing that doesn’t flatter the moment’s mission.

I’m on my way to the doctor’s. Old Ethiopian symptoms are resurfacing, and I’m hoping for the unlikely, that doctors here have answers that doctors in England don’t. I live next to the highway nerve center of Minnesota, dozens of sweeping lanes of asphalt, held aloft or dug into the earth, consuming miles of city real estate, generating a cyclone of heat. I’m cycling over an arching pedestrian overpass. There’s a collection of school children at the crest, rattling the chain link fence protecting them from the roaring abyss. Many are holding up signs that scream ‘Vote!’ in vibrant colors, and they’re shouting their message at the deaf winds below. A few vehicles honk encouragements, but otherwise it’s the eeriest Halloween display yet: blushing, gleeful and wide-eyed innocence – defenseless, armed with no vote of its own – standing on a ribbon of concrete above the world of power, laughing and pleading into the mad, crushing onslaught of the species.

The routine at the doctors is universal: fill in forms and wait. The best part is the magazines. I get to catch up on my gossip. This time it’s a story about a double suicide among darlings of the arts scene. Beck’s involved, as are Scientologists, so the tale is entertaining.

After I’m called, I spend hours in a gown in a whitewashed cube. There are no magazines. Doctors and nurses visit me. I’m recognized as the cipher – either irritating or refreshing, depending on the attendant – that I represent in doctor’s offices around the globe. The role is tiresome. When doctors are perplexed, they become apocalyptic. The diagnosis is quickly reduced to the blanket HIV virus, though I tell them I’ve been tested. This doesn’t deter them: there are apparently windows of viral invisibility. I promise to get tested again.

By the time I’m released, my first doctors have left for the day. The drugs and referrals they promised have evaporated. I mount the old bike as the daylight wanes. The children have abandoned the bridge, and I pedal slowly across alone. The perpetual onrush doesn’t slacken. The windshields are blank. Towers downtown recoil from the last sunlight, splashing it back into the unsettled air where it drifts toward yellow dissolution. Night is coming. Children are dressing as monsters.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Travelogue 246, October 28
A Close Call

Sunday morning, I take a spill. Urban cyclists are used to these petty disasters. If we’re a jittery sort, skittering along the margins of the road like water bugs, it’s because we’ve become too familiar with peril.

Minnesota autumns are capricious as Sunday drivers. This morning, it brings our first snow, and with it a powerful wind that throws stinging ice into my face. The snow melts on impact, streaming across the wet street, and within minutes my ass is soaked from the jet of icy water from my rear tire.

I’m meeting friends for breakfast downtown in a place called Hell’s Kitchen. It takes out-of-towners to re-acquaint us with our own towns: I’ve never heard of this place. It’s a basement-level orange novelty, furnished with gospel music – literally. Onstage a gospel duo belts it out for the brunch crowd. The combination makes for indigestion, I can tell you: the garish colors with eggs benedict with lounge gospel. Nevertheless, I’m present, wet behind seated on the chair and ice-blown hair standing on end.

Back on the bike, full and cold, I’m cruising along Ninth Street toward home. A van slows as he approaches an intersection, preparing for a turn. I’m past the corner where I assume he’s turning, but he has his eye on the driveway into a parking lot and suddenly swerves in front of me when I’m about five yards away. I grab the brakes, but calculate that I can’t stop in time. I can at least soften the impact, turning as I brake. He finally sees me and halts. I’m able to stop, but so hard that the bike starts to upend, and I execute a little bicycle pirouette on the front tire, managing to stay upright at last by planting one foot ankle-deep in an icy puddle.

The funny thing about this little episode is that the only other car on the road is being piloted by an old friend, Marc. Across the street, a guy is opening his driver’s side door, and I figure it’s just a Good Samaritan checking on us. But as the van driver emerges and begins a meek apology, I’m recognizing my friend. I cross over and we have a good little catch-up. All’s well that upends well.

A few days later, I visit Roxana at work. I want to see the ‘Day of the Dead’ exhibit. She works at Centro, a cultural center for Twin Cities Hispanics. It’s a beautiful exhibit – and even more beautiful for me because Roxana and one of her pre-school teachers has very thoughtfully constructed an altar for Hannah, the Ethiopian girl who died last summer.

The altar is stunning, not only beautiful as art, wonderful and awful to contemplate – fleeting as life, built for a day of memory, – but somehow it radiates compassion. It captures a love for this girl, whom no one here has met, so strongly that the woman standing next to me murmurs a question, ‘Who is that?’ and says she thinks she’s heard of Hannah. Is it cheesy in this day and age to wonder aloud whether love has this kind of power, some charge or blood to it that crosses over?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Travelogue 245, October 12
Fear and Trembling

So maybe Angst IS the unifying field that Einstein sought, the force that links the Big Bang to anti-matter and lucky charms.

We stagger about on our weekend break from one of the biggest free falls for Wall Street on record. Everyone has a look of panic about them. Who was ever secure in the current corporate climate? But now that it’s clear that jobs will be evaporating like dew on a summer morn, we’re all stricken by the shadows of monsters.

What looked and felt like an historic presidential election suddenly has a whiff of the Absurd about it. Clearly neither man has any clue what is going on or how to stop it. And even the comedy that is Sarah Palin palls. (At the mention of Palin, my students all chuckle cynically. Hmm.)

Last week, I experienced an odd little footnote to my apartment switch. I walk out the back door of my apartment building in the early morning. I’ve gotten used to heading to work while it’s still dark out. A part of my tired brain takes note of a figure leaning against the corner of a small garage structure in the alley, his back turned to me. I know what kind of neighborhood I’ve moved into; I write him off as a drunk slumped against a handy wall.

I approach the drunk. I sniff. The figure whirls around and it’s a cop with a handgun trained on me, two steady hands wrapped around the handle. The hole in the muzzle is set on my eye. The cop leans heavily into the wall. He’s a short man, sturdily built. His eyes are dilated with intensity. If I were to be shot, it would have happened before I saw the blacks of his eyes.

‘Where did you come from?’ he shouts. I live here. ‘Go the other way!’ He shouts that several times, his aim never wavering. I take his advice and back away.

The strange thing is, I’m unmoved by the episode. I don’t think my pulse even fluttered. Is it knowledge that death would have been instantaneous? By the time both of us had registered what was happening, danger had passed. I doubt that I could have been that astute. Is it my familiarity with guns in East Africa? Never was one drawn on me that suddenly in Africa. Or rather than that, maybe it’s the constant tension during the Ethiopian years, like a low-frequency current of danger. Or perhaps it was just too sudden at too early an hour for any normal reflex.

The knights of infinite resignation have taken over the movie theaters. Ridley Scott, master of Blade Runner, releases a film featuring Leonardo with brown contacts and supernatural resilience under torture. The message seems to be that the world is trapped in a Zoroastrian struggle between high-tech ignorance and intelligent but feral primitives. Somehow the moral high-ground is surrendered to the blood-thirsty dwellers among rocks and open-air markets.

Find at the same theaters a film starring a thin and doe-eyed boy named Shia, whom my female students find dreamy. He finds himself in a similarly perilous battle between forces, though in this case encased in one rather unappealing entity, which I won’t reveal to the reader. But again, we’re a curiously childish, high-tech race in the thrall of a ten year-old’s strident morality.

We people on the pavement look on, going without the petrol, and cursing the bread, working out our salvation, dodging bullets in our dread.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Travelogue 244, October 1
Half a Game Away

I found a place to live. Things were getting desperate at Luis’s. I was able to move into my new place two days after finding it, and it’s just on moving day that a fist-sized hole opens up in the ceiling of my room at Luis’s, dumping a bucket’s worth of rancid water on the floor.

I move into a neighborhood called Elliott Park downtown. It’s just across the 94 from downtown and, as you see in the photo, offers me a romantic view of city lights through my heavily-shuttered windows. They are heavily-shuttered because the neighborhood is not the most upscale. One day, coming home in mid-afternoon, I spot a very large black man mounting a very large white woman in quaint, prehistoric style in the grass just below my windows.

The place is roomy and pleasant. The truth is I’m paying too much, but after five years of couch-surfing (at least stateside), I feel comfortable choosing comfort. And still, the weather accommodates bicycling. Every chance I get, I jump on the old steed and race through downtown. I cross over the highway, I pass the Metrodome, I head for the Mississippi.

1987: It’s my second time in Minneapolis. The first time, I fled approaching winter, running off to Frisco. This time I’m determined to weather the long, cold months. I’m temping to survive. One of my first jobs stations me in the loading docks of the Star Tribune downtown, selling Homer Hankies. The Twins have won the pennant race, and are going on to the World Series. Excited locals are rushing out to buy up the little red and white hankies, despite the cold. I clearly remember flurries during those days. Twins fever was high; temperatures were low. Black Monday dropped its bomb and scurried off into history, leaving everyone to scratch their heads. The Twins won it all.

October, 1991: I move back to Minnesota, this time from New York City, just in time to see the Twins head back to the World Series. Spirits and hankies high, Minnesotans celebrate another historic victory, according to some the best World Series ever played. And a few days later, Minneapolis was smothered in the famous Halloween snowstorm. I was working overnights in the group home. I emerged at dawn into an eerie and silent city buried in white. Buses were buried; I walked home several miles through the snow, the town a ghostly wreck.

Just a week or so ago, I’ve claimed my bar stool at Grumpy’s on Washington Avenue. I’m grumpy myself tonight because they have an events menu, and my favorite tuna melt isn’t on it. The event that pre-empted my melt is unfolding just two blocks away in the Metrodome. The Twins have been closely trailing the White Sox all season in the contest for division title, and now with the season’s end in sight, we have a crack at the White Sox here at home. We’ve won two of the three games, and tonight could put us ahead. I’ve enjoyed this season. The team is young and spirited. I can’t help wishing them a shot at the playoffs.

The first pitch of the game has just taken flight when a noisy trio bursts into the bar. There’s a tall guy with sarcasm etched indelibly into his long face. There’s a heavy guy with a ghetto blaster on his shoulder. He can barely walk, but every few steps he lets out a whoop. There’s a blonde in a tight blue bikini and a fur cap. They take positions at the bar and issue random war cries. The large guy tries to balance the radio on his shoulder and almost pitches backward off his stool.

The game goes ten innings. The bar is crowded with excitables, though bikini girl has vanished. The air is dense with anticipation and blood-alcohol condensation. When the Twins claim the victory, the bar erupts in cheers. Within minutes, fans are streaming in the door from the Metrodome.

I mistakenly think the contest is decided that night: the Twins are going to the playoffs. But then I hear that the White Sox have an extra game to their season to even it up. Sure enough, over the next week, both teams lose two, win one, and the Sox win their last game. The two teams have to meet one more time, in Chicago. I’m teaching an evening class, and can’t get out until the seventh inning. Craig and I make it to Manning’s just in time to see the last pitches to the Twins in the ninth. The last one is a pop fly to center field, caught by a jubilant Soxer in a sliding dive, and it’s over. No one says a word at Manning’s, but turns back to table companions with a sad shrug. Half a game!